As my patients get older, more and more of them worry about dementia. But we do need to put the problem into perspective - while it does get more common with age, four out of five over 80s still have no significant memory problems.
Not all kinds of dementia can be prevented. But some simple steps can protect you against the second most common kind, vascular dementia.
What causes dementia?
Just over half of people who get dementia have Alzheimer’s disease. This condition occurs when the numbers of nerve fibres in the brain drop as the brain shrinks. The level of chemicals in the brain, which send messages through the nervous system, also drops.
The second most common kind of dementia is called vascular dementia. This is caused by lots of tiny strokes in the small blood vessels in the brain. Fortunately you can hugely cut your chance of getting this kind of dementia with the simple steps below.
How can I cut my risks?
You won’t know you have these unless you get them checked by your GP. You need to have them checked both once you get to the age of 40, and at least every five years after that. If you’re over 60, you should probably get your blood pressure checked at least once a year.
If you have high blood pressure, cutting the salt in your diet makes a big difference – don’t forget that much of the salt we eat is ‘hidden’ in processed foods, so do read the labels. Swapping from butter to a heart-healthy margarine or from full-fat to semi-skimmed milk and grilling instead of frying food, can cut your risks without you even noticing the change in taste!
Exercise your brain! Keeping your brain active – with quizzes, crosswords or taking up a new hobby – will keep your brain cells firing. Interestingly, drinking coffee (up to four cups a day) may also slow down memory loss, so you can enjoy your daily cuppa without the guilt.
Medicines to protect you
If your blood pressure or cholesterol is raised, there is an amazing array of tablets developed in the last few years which offer huge protection against vascular dementia. However, they only work if you take them! It’s easy to forget because you won’t feel any different if you don’t take them.
Get into a routine – maybe taking them with breakfast or putting them next to your toothbrush or your night cream so you see them. Otherwise, consider getting a dosette box – a plastic box with compartments for every day of the week and different times of day. You can put your whole week’s tablets into them at the start of the week and you’ll be able to see if you’ve taken them all. These boxes only cost a couple of pounds from pharmacies.
Worried a loved one might be getting dementia? How your GP can help
It’s terrifying to live with the worry that someone you love – perhaps a parent or your life partner – may be getting dementia. It may be tempting to bury your head in the sand, but it’s well worth speaking to your GP instead. They may be able to reassure you. Even if it is bad news, many patients tell me it’s a relief to know what the diagnosis is, rather than living with uncertainty.
Your GP can do an initial examination and tests to see whether your loved one could have early dementia. Some other conditions, like depression, can mimic dementia – and treating the underlying problem could get rid of the symptoms. Otherwise, they can make a referral to a specialist clinic – many hospitals now have dedicated dementia clinics. New national guidelines mean that medicines to delay the progression of dementia can be used at an early stage. Your GP can also help with practical aspects, like getting support for you as a carer.